Thursday, 27 December 2007

Emirati Films at DIFF 2007

Emirati Voices at the Dubai International Film Festival

Altogether there were 9 short films in this section of DIFF some definitely better than others but they were all interesting in terms of what they communicated about the UAE. That said there’s a good chance that I’m reading too much into them anyway. I do have a habit of seeing things that aren’t there!

Hadiyat Eid Al milad (The Birthday Gift - Dir. Ali Jamal)
This had a quite well developed storyline revolving around a favour done for a friend and although the acting was occasionally over dramatic in Egyptian soap stylee there were some good moments. The first hospital reception scene was plausible (and funny) and some of the emotional scenes when the mother and son were in the house were also convincing. The device of reality crossing over with a novel that one of the main characters is writing was unsubtle but effective. It ensured that events conspired to raise a lot of issues… administrative incompetence, impotence, infidelity, suicide and the damaging emotional disconnection from children that a strained marital relationship can have. My biggest problem was not being convinced that the main character would have done the favour for his obviously dodgy friend in the first place!!

Houjas (Dir. Mohd. Abdullah al Hammadi)
This was creepy and disturbing and the harsh uninhabited setting and cinematography contribute to this atmosphere of impending doom very effectively. The film begins with the funeral of a man whose daughter is then left orphaned. A male and wifeless neighbour then adopts the girl under the pretext that his son and her are like brother and sister having grown up together. This opening scene creates an immediate tension. This is enhanced by the apparent inability of the son and confusing appearances of the ghost of the girl’s father to have any impact on what inevitably follows. The strange thing is that the rape (or attempted rape) scene still comes as a shock even though you are expecting it.

100 Miles (Dir. Mustafa Abbas)
This initially seemed little more than a flimsy plot upon which to hang lots of violence….. a kind of pornography approach to film making! The director did fairly claim that it is a genre film in which violence is essentially the genre but I struggled to find anything that hadn’t already been done better by others. Being the first of its kind to be home-grown doesn’t give it automatic credibility but I suppose another element to this genre is serious homage to predecessors. The best thing about it was the character of Miles who was quite compelling and he was certainly the most developed and interesting character. He also acted the role very well and the mirror scene where he is struggling with his own schizoid self rang very true once I had forced Taxi Driver out of my mind! The fact that it was an Emirati film made entirely in English with Emirati actors playing westerners doing a western genre resonated on a number of interesting levels that could possibly stretch to a thesis but … whatever!

Ramad (Ashes – Dir Hamad Al Hammadi)
According to the Director, Ashes is about discovering how all you have achieved has turned to nothing and I really, really enjoyed it! This is probably because my capacity for being a surreal, detached, philosophically troubled and visually appreciative, arty type meant that it all made instant sense to me! As the opening credits announced it was from the Reflective Art Group I relaxed into my seat and then just drifted emotionally and sensually through the whole thing. Consequently my critical faculties were temporarily suspended during this film, which is what I loved about it but that means it’s not much use as a review! Sorry!

Wajeh Alilq (Stuck Face – Dir. Manal Ali Bin Amro)
This was another creepy and disturbing film that maintained a sense of fear and confusion throughout, enhanced by the remoteness of the setting and a discordant soundtrack (or did I imagine that?). We see a girl drawing circles obsessively on a blackboard in a crumbling school building with water dripping constantly from the ceilings and down the walls. Next we see her on a beach desperately trying to remove a pot stuck to her face and finally we see her bloodied legs hanging above us. These scenes are interspersed with an older woman walking purposely through a village past doors that are slamming as she passes. It was very effective in creating tension despite the fact I had absolutely no idea what the film was about. In the Q & A at the end Manal bin Amro explained that it was about growing up with a fear of circumcision. This was a big surprise to me because the focus on this practice has been almost exclusively confined to Africa and I did not know that it was an issue across to the Gulf. I assume that it's now rare if it happens at all but would like to know.

Ana Rajul (I am a Man - Dirs. Shamma Abu Nawas and Sahar al Khatib)
This was absolutely hilarious. Essentially a documentary about hair and fashion trends among young Emirati men it provided an incisive snapshot of west-east crossovers and contradictions, modern vs traditional views and everything in between. It also introduced its audience to some fantastically eloquent and funny modern cultural commentators. Asked to comment on subjects pertinent to contemporary male fashion such as wearing pink, wearing jewellery, waxing, piercing and hair colouring, all had something to say. The discussion centred on how far it was acceptable to go before being considered unmanly or gay and opinions were as diverse and interesting and amusing as the men and women who gave them. A lot of fun!

Bain Shamsain (Between Two Suns - Dir. Rehab Omar Ateeq)
This film contrasts the lives of a blind Emirati boy and an Iraqi refugee girl with two young and very rich Emirati men. The film shows excerpts from interviews with all of its subjects juxtaposed in a way that exacerbates the massive disconnections between their lives. The Iraqi girl lost her mother and most of her siblings in a bomb attack, which left her severely burned. Her painful matter of fact articulacy about this experience and a current situation of extreme financial difficulty and disfigurement are galaxies away from the two young men. Living with blindness and how the boy deals with his situation has no relation to the lives of the men either. Their problems are finding things to fill their time, finding new places to go and finding new ways to spend the money they have never had to earn. What they say is definitely exaggerated to highlight the extreme wealth gap but it also highlights the extreme and often wilful ignorance of less fortunate lives that privilege affords. The parallel dialogue technique makes this film perhaps too black and white sometimes but it was compelling from start to finish.

Bela Qalb (Heartless -Dir. Ahmed Zain)
This is a story of bitterness, selfishness and revenge in an unhappy marriage. Each partner mercilessly exploits the third character of the woman’s simple, dependent and emotionally fragile brother. Manipulated by both, he becomes the vehicle by which they try to eliminate each other. Despite occasional flashes of anger at what he is being asked to do the brother complies, powerless to act in any independent way. Ultimately his sister’s expectation that he will do all the dirty work and be on her side proves wrong and it is she who ends up paying the ultimate price.

There was some nice camerawork in this film and the issues raised in terms of the attitude towards the brother and maybe even congenital weakness were interesting. However, it wasn’t entirely convincing as a plot. I think that several of these films suffer from the fact that the story lines are actually too psychologically complex to be condensed into a short film format. There is not enough time for fundamental background information which would make the characters more credible, nor is there time for character development within the narratives of the films themselves.

Al Ghobna (Dir. Saeed Salmeen Al-Murry)
This was a vaguely disturbing film as well. I found it very interesting that so many of these films had a slightly menacing atmosphere where you are never entirely sure of anything except a constant low level tension. The innocence and surreal beauty of many of the scenes between the two children in this film were lovely to watch but it was impossible to escape the feeling that it couldn’t last. The realities of life and the adult world with its norms and prejudices were closing in and doom was inevitable. Despite this, the delicate openness of the boy’s acting left you convinced that within his sadness, his faith in this love remained. I really liked the yellow silk trailing everywhere especially in the desert scenes. The landscape was actually a very strong feature of this and several of the other films which were shot n Ras Al Khaimah (I think there's a film studio there).

The landscape itself became a dominant character and there seemed to be a very strong relationship between this constant presence and the atmospheres created in the films, often symbolically. In one Q and A, an Iraqi theatre director complained that there was too much symbolism and that they really didn't need it. Another older critic seemed to dismiss the lot in saying he found nothing there for him. One of the Directors responded by pointing out that there are no academies here to teach flashy techniques so the fact that these films have been produced at all is remarkable. He then dismissed his second critic by rather sweetly saying that the films were made for the shabab!

1 comment:

  1. i think you have possibly made these films more interesting that they were or were intended to be. However I only saw the last four emirati-made flicks in your list so cant be sure. Of these I found much that was impressionistic and amateurish, with the exception of the documentary style interviews about "iffeminate" shabab. As you say, that was hilarious. More documentaries revealing more of themselves to each other and the majority foreign residents in the UAE would be welcome.